April 18, 2024

A Grant for the U-Drop Inn Helps a Town Feel Lucky

Outdoor seating allows Route 66 travelers to appreciate this Art Deco icon.

Shamrock, Texas, has a population of just 1,773. Yet, at the height of the tourist season, as many as 15,000 visitors can show up in one day. Shamrock sits on the historic Route 66 and is home to the 1936 Tower Station and U-Drop Inn Café. The Art Deco masterwork is one of the most photographed buildings on the Mother Road, said Crystal Hermesmeyer, economic development director for the city of Shamrock.

But for all of that interest, the café in the historic building seats just 33 people at a time. So, over the years, the city, which owns the building, has come up with other strategies to improve the way that Route 66 travelers can experience the building, which is on the National Register for Historic Places.

“We are always on the lookout for something to do to help revitalize our portion of Route 66,” Hermesmeyer said.

Side view of the Tower Station and U-Drop Inn Cafe.

photo by: R Boed via Flickr CC BY 2.0 DEED

The U-Drop Inn along Route 66 in 2023.

When Hermesmeyer heard about the Backing Historic Small Restaurants grant offered by American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, she saw an opportunity to continue that work. The annual program started as a way to aid struggling restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic. In its first three years, the program awarded $40,000 each to 25 different restaurants. Now, entering its fourth year, the funds have increased to $50,000 each for 50 different restaurants, expanding aid so these historic restaurants can improve their businesses and support their communities.

The city of Shamrock, which owns and historically preserved the building, worked with Osbaldo De Leon, owner of the café, to apply for the grant to install outdoor seating so that more people could stop and appreciate the building and to create a new community gathering space. The café is mainly open for lunch, with coffee and pastries in the mornings, so there are periods when it is closed that people might still want to admire it. In addition, in the application, the team sought funds to install a new door to make the restaurant ADA accessible.

“It is notable that they were dedicated to a project that melded historic preservation and ADA accessibility. Sometimes those things can be difficult to do so at the same time,” said Seri Worden, senior director of preservation programs at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

When Hermesmeyer walked into the restaurant to let De Leon know they had been awarded the grant, his reaction was disbelief. “I was midway through scooping ice cream, and I just could not believe it. I thought it was a prank or something,” he said.

With additional funding, the U-Drop Inn team added outside seating at the Tesla charging station right next door so travelers have a place to get out, stretch their legs and read the historical markers on the building while they charge electric vehicles. “That is a pretty big deal for us because it exposes us to people who normally would not see our building or see Shamrock in its glory,” Hermesmeyer said.

View of new seating at the U-Drop Inn Cafe.

photo by: Rafter R Photography

A look at the new seating at the U-Drop Inn.

View of the inside of U-Drop Inn Cafe.

photo by: Rafter R Photography

An interior view of the U-Drop Inn and Café .

The outdoor seating uses neutral colors so that it does not take away from the building’s original façade. “It looks like it was there from the beginning,” De Leon said.

While the American Express-funded Backing Historic Small Restaurants grant program is not exclusively about Route 66, there have been six different Route 66 corridor restaurants receive funds in its first three years. Those include two Black-owned restaurants in Tulsa, Oklahoma—Wanda J’s Next Generation Soul Food and Stutt’s House of Barbeque—Hi-Way Cafe in Vinita, Oklahoma, and Mitla Cafe in San Bernardino, California and Delgadillo’s Snow Cap in Seligman, Arizona.

“The heart and soul of Route 66 are the small, locally owned businesses that include diners, cafes, motels, trading posts and more,” said Amy Webb, senior director of preservation programs at the National Trust. “A key to preservation efforts on Route 66 is to ensure that historic Route 66 buildings have vibrant and successful businesses in them, with owners who can then take on the building’s upkeep and maintenance. Helping to revitalize small businesses on Route 66 is an important element of helping to preserve Route 66.”

“You cannot help but fall in love with the U-Drop Inn,” Worden said. “It hits all the right buttons, this old, 1930s building that is an important community anchor.”

View of three new planters next to the U-Drop Inn Cafe.

photo by: Rafter R Photography

A view of some of the planters next to the new tables at the U-Drop Inn and Café .

Interior of the U-Drop Inn Cafe.

photo by: Rafter R Photography

Interior of the U-Drop Inn and Café .

The U-Drop Inn is so titled thanks to a long-ago naming contest. Over the decades, it has had ups and downs. It served travelers as a restaurant, including as a barbecue spot, until it closed in 1995. The restaurant was shuttered for years. The city restored the building in 2002, but it wasn’t until 2021 that De Leon, whose family runs other restaurants in Shamrock, opened the current café. His emphasis is on foods that work with the Americana feel of the area, such as panini sandwiches and milkshakes. “Everyone loves milkshakes,” De Leon said.

In 2006, even as it was without a restaurant, the U-Drop Inn was indirectly introduced to young fans as the service station portion was a model for Ramone’s House of Body Art in the Disney/Pixar animated movie “Cars.” “We get Google Alerts every day with people taking pictures of the building,” Hermesmeyer said. Road trippers also appreciate the neon sign being lit at night, she added.

The team received the grant in May 2023, and worked on the seating from July to November 2023. In addition to the seating, which is ADA compliant, they also added a watering station, with a place to refill water bottles for humans and a place for dogs to get a drink (Shamrock is a pet-friendly town, and many road trippers have dogs in tow).

March 2024 was the first St. Patrick’s Day celebration with the new seating, and it was much appreciated, as more than 30,000 people came for the holiday (more related to the Shamrock town name, rather than Route 66). The town’s name came from its first postmaster. He was submitting names to Washington, D.C. to name the town, and everything he tried had already been taken. So, in 1924 the Irish immigrant suggested “Shamrock” and the name was born.

In addition to the Backing Small Historic Restaurants grant, the city found additional funding and neighboring businesses donated supplies, making the funds go farther.

Exterior view of the U-Drop Inn Cafe.

photo by: Rafter R Photography

Exterior view of the U-Drop Inn and Café .

There’s excitement about the U-Drop Inn project, Worden said, because 2026 will be the centennial celebration of Route 66, and the outdoor seating and beautification are invigorating the town. Art Deco-style murals and sculptures inspired by the U-Drop Inn are also in the works.

“We are appreciative that there is a grant out there that takes a town of our size seriously and is looking out for the little guys and not just putting money into the bigger communities,” Hermesmeyer said. “We’re a part of history and to keep us going and alive speaks volumes.”

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Margaret Littman is a Nashville-based journalist who tells the stories of people and places. Follow her work on socials @littmanwrites.

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